Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 68 vs. the 76ers

Celtics (52-15) vs. Philadelphia (50-17)
March 7, 1980
Boston Garden

The Celtics took a monumental step to locking up the Atlantic Division by thrashing Philadelphia in front of a capacity crowd at the Garden, 111-92.

“Boston is a very good team,” said Doug Collins, speaking to The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan in his typical articulate manner after the game.  “They’re good in every facet of the game. They rebound, press and pass well.  They have no weaknesses.  They came up with a plus in Rick Robey.  It looks as if (Dave) Cowens getting hurt was a blessing in disguise. It gave Robey the confidence and now Cowens can work his way back gradually.”

Doug Collins SI cover

Julius Erving dominated the Celtics again with 36 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists, but Dr. J was only one of three players for the 76ers in double figures.  The Celtics, led by Larry Bird’s 27 points, had five players with double-figures and had an array of players (Maxwell – 9 rebounds; Robey – 11 rebounds; Archibald – 9 assists) who contributed.  The battle between Erving and Bird — along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they were the top candidates for the Most Valuable Player award, and Ryan captured the importance of the matchup:

Just look in the corner, where a pair of legitimate MVP candidates have been gearing up for their latest confrontation by doing everything for their teams but wash the uniforms. Julius Erving is having his finest NBA season, and Larry Bird is having a year to match any ever enjoyed by an NBA rookie. “I wish I had more than two eyes,” says Bill Fitch, “so I could just watch Doc and Larry go at it.”

The victory put the Celtics three games ahead of the Sixers in the loss column with only 13 games remaining in the regular season.  The two division winners would receive first round byes, so there was extra incentive for each team.  Though the Celtics finished a combined 0-4 against Seattle and Los Angeles, this win put their record to 3-2 against Philly and gave them a new season high of 9 wins in a row.

Bill Fitch explained to Ryan why he detested the mini-series that playoff teams were forced to play unless they won the division:

“Two years ago we won 10 out of 11 to get into the playoffs, and in the first game of the mini the Knicks came into our building and beat us by shooting 68 percent from the floor, and I mean from downtown.  Then we go to New York and are tied when Spencer Haywood throws one in while falling down to beat us.  I had to think about that all summer.”

In Ryan’s Globe recap, note the respect for brilliance from the Garden fans:

There was an eerie sense of deja vu in this game.  Once it was Wilt Chamberlain whose individual brilliance would be pitted against the Celtics.  This time it was another case of one-on-five in a big Boston-Philly game.  Julius Erving was dazzling, breathtaking, outrageous, miraculous and completely noble as he attempted the Herculean feat of carrying nine teammates on his back against a smooth-functioning five-man unit that often seemed to come at the Sixers like a wave of Alabama halfbacks.

Before Cunningham mercifully pulled his All-Star forward from the game with 3:30 left, The Doc had scored 36 of the first 75 Philadelphia points.  He had hit 12 of 16 second-half shots and 15 of his final 21 after going 1 for 7 in the opening period.  To those 36 points he added a game-high 13 rebounds and 5 assists.  And he was properly rewarded with a standing ovation from the admiring Celtic fans.

Dr. J

Even Larry Bird was impressed.

But this superb effort had been completely unaided.  “Doc is playing better than anybody in the league right now,” said Larry Bird (27 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists), “but no one man can beat us the way we’re playing,” Bird told Ryan after the game.  The Celtics did, in fact, play outstanding team defense in this game. The Sixers got off slowly (16 points in the first period) and then tapered off.  For long stretches of this game, it truly was The Doc vs. The World, such as in the 12- minute spell from 66-42, Boston, to 82-70, Boston, wherein Erving scored 24 of the 28 Philadelphia points.

There was even a Bird-Doc showdown in the fourth quarter.  Bird opened the final frame by shooting 5-7, hitting shooting right over Erving, and Dr. J started off the quarter by nailing six of his first seven shots.  The Celtics were helped greatly by the brilliant play of Cedric Maxwell, who finished with 20 and 9, and simply refused to allow Caldwell Jones (0-0, 0 points) and Darryl Dawkins to control the paint.  Philly, who was now 11-2 since acquiring Lionel Hollins, witnessed Pete Maravich play his most meaningful minutes as a Celtic, registering 13 points in just 10 minutes.

The Celtics remained at home and looked for the 10th straight victory at 1pm against the Bullets.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.